Rally Review -- Acropolis Rally

Ride a Crooked Trail

They used to call it the toughest rally in the world outside Africa. In a way, it still merits that description, for it still uses special stages which are rougher than those of any other round of the World Championship, and has the highest retirement rate of the series, largely due to heat, dust, rocks and a time schedule which still allows very little opportunity indeed for any major servicing.

The Acropolis Rally used to be something of a mountain road race. The stages were real car-breakers, and were strung together by such tight timing that if anything broke, retirement was the inevitable consequence. Reliability was vital, and anyone who tackled the event in a car which was not built for strength was just asking for trouble.

Today, rest stops have softened the event as much as they have any other, but some of the stages are still rough and some of the timing still so tight that anything other than refuelling or a tyre change can easily lead to lost minutes. There were many new stages this year, some of them quite smooth, but the bite of Greek rocks was still there in places and no-one could take chances by using cars which were in any way fragile.

But modern rally cars are as purposebuilt as racing cars. They are technologically advanced, often temperamental, and are designed to give of their best for the time required. It matters little whether a car will go on performing for several weeks. If a rally lasts just five days, then that is all that is required, although the equation for reliability does not actually take into account such precision over life span.

The roughness, of course, is not in our opinion cause for complaint. It is part of the character of the rally and it would be wrong to eliminate it just because some people prefer smooth roads. Rough tracks are as much part of rallying as snow, mud or plain tarmac. Those who complain are usually doing so not for any great principle or conviction but due to no more than personal preference, and that renders the so-called complaint quite unjustifiable.

The heat, the dust, the rocks and the constant concern over a minute lost here and another there used to cause intense fatigue, and this was one of the events in which stamina was as important as skill. Even if you were not among the fastest, if your car held together and you did not succumb to the effects of tiredness, then you stood a good chance of finishing in the top ten.

It was on this event some years ago that the SCDA was formed, partly as a joke but partly to register its effect on competitors. The Sleeping Co-Drivers' Association stemmed from a discussion between co-drivers who found that they were sometimes nodding off, even when reading their notes, and it was quite common in those days for cars to stop in mountain hamlets so that their crews could douse their heads under the village tap!

Today, the stamina requirement has gone, but the heat and the dust remain as formidable opponents. Ventilate the car to cool the crew and you will immediately let in the dust which causes sore eyes and croaky speech. Many co-drivers have little voice left at all when they finish an Acropolis Rally. Why this is more pronounced in Greece than in, say, the Safari seems to defy explanation, but it is nevertheless the case.

The toughest part of the Acropolis used to be in that land-mass in the south-west of the country called the Peloponnisos, south of the Gulf of Corinth and reached by road over a bridge spanning that great cleft in the earth which forms the Corinth Canal. The stages there were rougher than most, and the road timing tightened up so that any little problem would inevitably produce a penalty. Service support had to be both fast and frequent, and to make it even more difficult, this whole section of the event used to be run at night.

The competitive part of the rally used to end there in the Peloponnisos, although the tedious drive back to Athens, through the most abominable of traffic congestions, often became needlessly hairy when competitors got held up by traffic jams and had to resort to driving on the wrong side of the road or on pavements, passing red lights and other dicey manoeuvres simply to avoid penalty on a section of the rally which really should not have been competitive at all.

Eventually the organisers removed the need for this boring but risky journey back to Athens by regrouping everyone at Poros, in the southern Peloponnisos, then bringing the whole cavalcade back to Athens by ferry boat.

It was a splendid idea, appreciated by everyone, but after 1985 it was discontinued when it was decided that the route should no longer go to the Peloponnisos. This year the rally returned there, but on the first day, after which the journey around the Gulf of Corinth was avoided by using a ferry boat to cross from Corinth itself to Itea, where the rally was then based for two nights.

The number of new stages this year meant that the works crews had to spend more time recceing and perfecting their notes than would otherwise be the case. On familiar stages, they invariably polish up the notes which they made the year before. One team indulged in a little trick to make sure that their drivers could practice at rally speeds without risk of meeting other traffic. They simply took enough men and vehicles along to block the stages completely, two at a time!

The use of helicopters to carry mechanics and spares has become a common feature of World Championship rallying, although some professional drivers now insist that a team helicopter should fly slightly ahead of them in order to call out hazard warnings over the radio. This seems to be taking things too far, although it must be said that a stray car and a motor cycle were encountered this year on special stages. The same happened last year in Corsica, and such failure to ensure that stages are not clinically sealed from all other traffic courts tragedy and is an unforgivable organisational sin.

Helicopter servicing began many years ago, we recall, when Fiat rented a Royal Protection aircraft, an Alouette III, during the Morocco Rally and used it very effectively, especially along the remote tracks of the southern desert. Since then, one helicopter per team, in addition to a high-flying radio relay aircraft, became normal. But nowadays, probably due to drivers' demands for aerial hazard-spotting, one per car is more likely, or even two! This year during the Acropolis Rally there were no less than thirteen team helicopters flying around, two each being used by Lancia, Mazda, Subaru, Nissan and Toyota and one each by Ford, Toyota Italy and Fina.

Following tradition, the start of the rally was in the road at the foot of the hill in Athens on which perches the Acropolis itself, but headquarters were at Lagonissi, the hotel and bungalow complex on the coast some twenty miles south-east of the city. It was here that scrutiny took place on the Saturday, and to which cars returned to an overnight closed park after the opening "superspecial" stage on the Sunday. "Subspecial" would be a more appropriate name for some of these preliminary tests, for most are artificially created on large fields or waste ground and are certainly unpopular among competitors. The Acropolis opening stage was near the coast, further along than Lagonissi, and when it was over, the line of traffic heading back to Athens seemed endless.

The next day, the rally headed westward, penetrating just into the north-eastern corner of the Peloponnisos. After nine stages, the ferry took cars and crews across the gulf to Itea, near which the first night stop was spent at Eratini. On the Tuesday, a loop passed through twelve more stages (one of which was cancelled due to roadworks) before another night stop at Eratini. Wednesday was the last day, and this contained sixteen more stages before a long (100 miles) road journey back to the evening finish in Athens.

The line-up of professional entries was the best that any World Championship event has gathered for years, no less than seven works teams making the journey to Greece with the avowed intention of striving to win. Add to this the presence of three Ladas from the Soviet Union-Us Autoexport organisation and the result is a list which would gladden the hearts of rally organisers anywhere.

Lancia was making its first appearance under the directorship of new team manager Giorgio Pianta following Claudio Lombardi's departure to take over Ferrari. Pianta is no stranger to the side, of course, having been a test and development driver in the days of the Fulvia and the Stratos, and later very closely involved in the practical side of service planning and execution. His return drew the comment from some observers, "Now, Lancia will start getting really cunning again!" Lancia's line-up consisted of three Delta Integrales for Massimo Biasion/Tiziano Siviero, Juha Kankkunen/Juha Piironen and Didier Auriol/Bernard Occelli, the latter crew in a car entered by the Jolly Club and backed by Fina. Argentinian pair Jorge Recalde/Martin Christie drove a fourth car, whilst a private version was in the hands of Greek driver Giannis Vardinogiannis who, not surprisingly, uses the pseudonym "Jigger". The latter's practice sessions were somewhat crowded, for the son of a Greek shipping and oil magnate was accompanied by hefty bodyguards during most of his travels.

Another Delta Integrale was in the hands of Finnish girl Minna Sillankorva and her Italian co-driver Michela Marangoni, their object being to seek points for the Ladies' Cup of the World Rally Championship.

Ford brought three Sierra Cosworths for François Delecour/Anne-Chantal Pauwels, Malcolm Wilson/Nicky Grist and Alessandro Fiorio/Luigi Pirollo. Delecour, whose performance in Monte Carlo made everyone sit up and take notice, was tackling his first World Championship event on dirt roads. A fourth Sierra, built and serviced by Mike Little Preparations, was driven by Carlos Mennem, son of the President of Argentina.

That was the extent of the European professional attendance. Apart from Lada, the other five teams were all Japanese, though each of them was operating from a base in Europe.

Toyota brought three Celica GT-4s from Cologne, driven by Carlos Sainz/Luis Moya, Mikael Ericsson/Claes Billstam and Armin Schwarz/Arne Hertz. The latter driver has gained a somewhat undeserved reputation of late as a perpetual non-finisher, some critics claiming that he exceeds his limits and invariably crashes. It's true that he has gone off the road several times, but he has youth on his side and is an extremely fine driver; certainly the best that Germany has produced since Walter Rohrl, and in our opinion Ove Andersson's decision to bring him into the team is entirely justified.

Toyota Italy sent two Group N Celica GT-4s for Alessandro Fassina/Massimo Chiapponi and Mario Panontin/Flavio Zannela, this outfit operating quite separately from Toyota Team Europe, even with its own helicopter.

Subaru sent one Legacy from Prodrive in England, driven by Markku Alén/Ilkka Kivimäki, but it was certainly no shoestring attendance, and the fact that they had just one car did not lessen the effort being made, nor the resources being utilised.

Another team with just one car in the list was Mazda, a four-wheel drive 323 sent from Brussels for Hannu Mikkol/Johnny Johansson. However, there were several other Mazdas in the event, notably the Group N versions being driven by experienced and well-known Greek drivers Pavlos Moschoutis and Tasos Gemenis. Another Group N Mazda 323, brought from Italy, was driven by Belgian exponent Gregoire de Mevius.

At the start of this year there was a reshuffle among the management of Nissan's motorsport branches in Japan, but the rally team has followed the Japanese trend and set up a base in Europe. Indeed, it operates from the same British shed as the sports car outfit. The team's first appearance with its new Sunny GTI-R, a car brimful of advanced technological features, was at the end of March on the Safari Rally. However, the cars were prepared in Japan, not Great Britain. Japan-built cars were again taken to the Acropolis Rally, for Stig Blomqvist/Benny Mellander and David Llewelin/Peter Diekmann. We understand that it will not be until the RAC Rally in November that cars actually built and prepared in Milton Keynes will make their appearance.

A third car, a Group N version, was enterered by Greek importer N J Theoharakis S A for local drivers Stratis Hadgipanagiotis/Tonia Pavli. This driver is another who uses a pseudonym, "Stratissino".

Mitsubishi, represented by the UK-based Ralliart team, entered two of their four-wheel-steering Galant VR-4s for Finns Timo Salonen/Voitto Silander and Swedes Kenneth Eriksson/Staffan Parmander.

The Russian team, as usual from the Autoexport organisation, consisted of three Lada Samaras for Sergei Voukovitch/Andris Zvingevits, Sergei Alyasov/Alexandr Levitan and Alexandr Artemenko/Niktor Timkovski. The latter crew is the pair who drove so well in last year's Rothmans Cyprus Rally and finished third overall.

Familiar pseudonyms further down the field were those of "Iaveris" who once drove rear-wheel drive Escorts very spiritedly indeed, now driving an Opel Manta, and "Leonidas", the Greek Renault importer, who was driving a Cleo 1.6-S. There was not a single British private entrant, and even the usual Austrian visitors were not there, not even Acropolis regular Rudolf Stohl. There weren't any Kenyans either, although Shekhar and Yvonne Mehta came along to drive a Lancia Delta Integrale as a course car, and this was Mehta's first taste of "competition" driving since his bad accident during the Paris-Dakar Rally a few years ago.

The opening superspecial stage produced no dramas, although some drivers complained that the organisers should not have watered the track. The intention was to keep down dust, but some front runners felt that they had conditions which were slippery, whereas later cars would be on a dry track. Perhaps the most interesting performance of the day was that of Spanish privateer from the Canary Isles, Capdevilla. Having lost drive to the front wheels of his Sierra Cosworth, he decided to complete the stage in reverse! Delecour broke a rear damper, whilst Mikkola collected a puncture and finished the stage on the rim.

The best time was put up jointly by Toyota men Sainz and Schwarz, but when just ten seconds separated the leading fifteen after this 2.7-mile opener, positions were hardly more than academic.

The next morning, there was a journey of some forty miles to the first stage, with seventy-eight minutes allowed. It doesn't sound very tight, but with Athens traffic to negotiate on the way it certainly turned out that way. Indeed, in order to get there without losing time, most drivers had to indulge in queue-jumping and driving on the wrong side of the road. Tight timing as a means of limiting service opportunities between special stages is a perfectly legitimate ploy, but it has no place in a section traversing densely crowded city streets, and more time should have been allowed for this journey.

One who will certainly agree with us is Kenneth Eriksson. Like the others, he used all the road, but was unfortunate enough to be involved in a collision with another car. Obeying the law, he stayed at the scene until an official arrived and told him to continue, but he had been delayed a good ten minutes and collected a seven minute penalty when he arrived at the first stage.

There had been considerable rain in the weeks before the event, but when the rally started it was dry and sunny, albeit with some wind which suggested that showers were not unlikely. Tyres of all types were therefore held at the ready, especially those with toughened sidewalls to cope with the puncture-provoking rocks of the Greek mountain roads.

Eriksson's misfortune obviously tightened the bit between his teeth, for during the day he set a string of best times in his Mitsubishi, and were it not for his seven minute penalty he would have led after the first day by something like three-quarters of a minute, despite breaking a shock-absorber. As it was, he was down in fourteenth place.

Recalde retired on the first stage when a mysterious electrical failure stopped his engine, whilst Delecour noticed that his engine was misfiring and sometimes cutting out at high rpm. This worsened later, and a change of ignition pack did not seem to improve matters, but eventually it was cured and Ford's French driver was able to use full power again, though not before losing valuable time.

Sainz, running first on the road, had the misfortune to encounter a motorcycle on one stage and a car on the next, incidents which made him understandably angry, especially when he was 44 seconds down on the leader at the end of the first day. That's not a great deal by Acropolis standards, but it would have been less had it not been for the stray vehicles.

Wilson spun, Biasion complained of poor brakes, whilst Alén stopped several times on one stage due to an electrical problem. Fiorio's front differential stopped working and he did the last stage of the day with just rear-wheel-drive. The roadside replacement of the diff later cost him two minutes on the road.

The leaders were closely bunched when they got to Corinth, Auriol leading by fourteen seconds from team-mate Kankkunen. Alén was next, followed by Sainz, Biasion, Eriksson and Schwarz, the latter having to drive on to the ferry boat with one rear wheel minus its tyre.

Early on the Tuesday, Delecour dropped two and a half minutes on the road having his front differential replaced, whilst Mikkola needed some clutch attention. After just two stages, Kankkunen took over the lead from his team-mate Auriol.

Transmission problems on the rough roads seemed to be the bane of the Fords, for Wilson also had to have a broken front differential replaced. Alén cracked his rear differential against a rock and did the whole of the next stage before the unit could be replaced. There had been a considerable oil leak, and Alén was keeping his fingers crossed that there would be no sudden seizure. Schwarz had his centre differential changed.

Eriksson's engine began overheating after its radiator fan failed, whilst Auriol broke a rear driveshaft. Eriksson, too, had a driveshaft break, and dropped three road minutes having it replaced.

Ford's transmission troubles all came to a head on this second real day of the rally. First Delecour went out when his front drive failed. Then Wilson had to stop when he lost a wheel following failure of a front driveshaft close to the hub. Finally, Fiorio encountered the same problem but, with the wheel still in place but flapping dangerously, he continued to the end of the stage with co-driver Pirollo sitting in the boot to lessen the weight on the front of the car. But the wheel eventually came off, and when he got to his service after the stage the team decided that he could not continue.

Another retirement on the Tuesday was that of Salonen, who stopped when his Mitsubishi's steering failed. He had been complaining about his steering for some time, but eventually the mechanics got it right and Salonen said he was satisfied. Obviously, something was still wrong.

At the end of the day it was Sainz who emerged the leader, just twenty-one seconds ahead of Kankkunen. Two more seconds behind was Auriol, followed by Biasion, Schwarz, Eriksson and Alén, in that order. Finnish girl Minna Sillankorva was taking no chances and was fifteenth overall, in a good position to score championship points, which are only awarded to those who finish inside the first twenty.

Another to go was Blomqvist, whose engine was running on just three cylinders and sounded terrible. Mechanics removed the head, found that a valve stem had broken and that was that. Team-mate Llewelin was still going, although the car was taking a pounding and came out of one stage with its sump-guard dragging on the ground.

Mikkola emerged from one stage with his left rear brake smoking, whilst Schwarz needed the attention of an extinguisher-wielding marshal when he arrived at the end of a stage with the right rear of the car smouldering, caused by friction after driveshaft breakage.

Early in the day, the water cooling to Eriksson's front struts failed. Fortunately, the first two stages were relatively smooth and no serious hindrance was caused.

Auriol lost all chances of recovery when he collected a puncture on the twenty-mile "Tarzan" stage and lost the tyre. And it was on this stage that Kankkunen took the lead from Sainz when the latter had a puncture about a mile from the end.

Alén had been pushing hard to give his new team a good result, but he came to a dramatic stop just four stages from the end when his Subaru rolled. He and Kivimäki were unhurt, but the car was too badly damaged to continue, so down came a helicopter to whisk them back to their hotel.

That was about the size of it. As usual, the retirement rate had been high, among both professionals and amateurs, the result of a combination of rough roads and tight timing. But that is part of the character of the Acropolis, and we would be the last to suggest changing it, except to lessen the urgency in urban areas.

Sainz keeps his lead of the World Championship, but is now only seventeen points ahead of Kankkunen, whilst among the makes Toyota's lead over Lancia is now down to just three points. Sadly, Finnish driver Minna Sillankorva retired on the last day and scored no points in her chase for the world ladies' title. -- GP

***

Results (top five) Acropolis Rally (Greece), 2-5 June 1991

1. Juha Kankkunen (SF)/Juha Piironen (SF) -- Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp.A -- 7h 20m 05s

2. Carlos Seinz(E)/Luis Moya (E) -- Toyota Celica GT-4, Gp A -- 7h 21m 06s

3. Massimo Biasion (I)/Tiziano Siviero (I) -- Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A -- 7h 23m 35s

4. Didier Auriol (F)/Bernard Occelli (F) -- Lancia Delta Integrale, Gp A -- 7h 24m 47s

5. Armin Schwartz(D)/Arne Hertz (S) -- Toyota Celica GT4, Gp A -- 7h 25m 40s

World Champion Situation:

Drivers (top five) after 6 of 14 rounds: Carlos Seinz (E) 75 pts; Juha Kankkunen (SF) 58 pts; Didier Auriol (F) 42 pts: Massimo Biasion (I) 39 pts; Kenneth Eriksson (S) 24 pts.

Makes after 5 of 10 rounds: Toyota 57 pts; Lancia 54 pts: Subaru 18 pts; Ford 14 pts; Nissan 10pts